How the need to work makes a general mess of things

An economic system that forces people to sell their labor in order to survive is not sustainable. Here's why.

It has been suggested by H. W. van Loon that one of the primary reasons for the inferiority of Greek and Roman inventions compared to those developed from the late 18th century up to the present day is due to the surplus of slaves during these earlier times (The Story of Mankind, p. 425). As slaves could be forced to work, this surplus meant that there existed no incentive to create labour saving devices. Although 2000 years have passed, this situation appears to be repeating itself.


Under the current economic structure, a person's labour is reduced to a commodity which he or she is forced to sell in order to survive. Jobs are therefore pretty important to most people. And as people need jobs in order to survive, democratic governments, which are the supposed representatives of these work-hungry individuals and therefore subject to their influence, consistently make efforts to protect and generate jobs. The fact then that many of these jobs, especially in the administrative and manufacturing industries, could easily be replaced by more efficient and effective computers and machines is not something that any politician wanting to gain office would bandy around.

Governments also encourage consumption. This then encourages entrepreneurs to create their own jobs that exist primarily to produce an excess amount of unnecessary goods. If you can endure sitting through a couple of hours worth of infomercials you will witness a number of examples. Workers are forced to produce, package, market and sell these goods which often have no lasting benefit to the consumer, purely because that is seen as their sole means for survival. Governments, who are all about 'job creation', then encourage the consumption of these goods as a way to keep the cycle in motion. In short, people are forced to work otherwise they will be homeless and starve, so governments and entrepreneurs go out of their way to find 'work' for people to do.

The fact that the majority of people are forced to work creates a surplus of labour, which in turn keeps the price of labour relatively low. This low price for labour then acts as a disincentive for anyone to invest in the development of more efficient labour saving devices as there is no perceived need. The fact that people are encouraged to consume encourages excess production. As a result, people are having to work more, and enjoy less of their lives than they should be able to with the levels of technological sophistication we currently have at our disposal. Secondly, and more importantly, this inefficient and excess production of goods has an extremely negative impact on the environment. Human labour is incredibly inefficient due to the physical limitations of the human body and the capacity for human error. This inefficiency in production results in excess waste, which translates into unnecessary pollution being dumped into the environment. Excess production is waste in itself.

An economic system that removes the link between one's capacity to sell their labour and their survival would encourage investment in much more efficient methods of production as people would no longer be as willing to sell their labour as cheaply as they do now. It would also reduce the production of unnecessary products that are currently produced only to provide workers with some means for survival. If people are no longer forced to work in order to ensure their survival, others will no longer be encouraged to consume in order to support these workers. The net result is less production, less pollution and a vastly improved state of the environment.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.